When asked what their fans might expect when Sweet Honey In The Rock returns to Carnegie Hall on November 4, Aisha Kahlil, a mainstay of the all-female a cappella ensemble for some three decades, sums it up in a single word: Sankofa. A word of African origin, it means "moving forward while looking back."
Sweet Honey In The Rock has always been about both: respecting that which has come before, while pointing toward the future. With nearly four decades behind them, the group's significant body of work continually reveals new riches that delight fans both old and new, while at the same time Sweet Honey seeks fresh avenues of expression.
Their most recent undertaking is a live in-concert tribute to three iconic women—each now gone—whose music inspired the group: Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba, as well as a special tribute to Abbey Lincoln, who passed away prior to their performance. "They were all conscious women and activists in their own right who tied their music to the work they did in their lives," says Kahlil. "We look up to them as heroines and mentors. We were all touched in a great way by everything they left behind for us."
Coming next from Sweet Honey is Affirmations (For a New World), a collaborative, fully orchestrated effort with Bill Banfield, a composer and professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "Each of us wrote lyrics for it," says Kahlil, "then Bill took our lyrics and set them to music."
One thing that hasn't changed since Sweet Honey In The Rock was formed in 1973—founder Bernice Johnson Reagon retired from the group in 2004—is its commitment to providing audiences with a quality presentation of vocal harmonic music. And if there is one place in which they love to sing, it's Carnegie Hall; Sweet Honey's 1988 live album recorded at the venerable institution remains a fan favorite to this day. "We love the New York audience and we love the acoustics of the Hall," says Kahlil. "The sound is special, and there's a certain energy that the whole experience brings to us."
When the legendary Harry Belafonte speaks of Sweet Honey In The Rock, he refers to the group as a singular entity. "Her songs lead us to the well of truth that nourishes the will and courage to stand strong. She is the keeper of the flame," he has said. Like the music of Sweet Honey In The Rock, Belafonte's statement is unadorned, eloquent, and direct. Sometimes that's all you need: the human voice speaking—and singing—the truth.
—Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of JazzTimes magazine.